On the day the president said not to worry about COVID-19, Gary Hughes made the hour-long drive to work missing his mother’s voice. Every day, he had talked to her on the drive to Nashville, Tennessee, but now she was in the hospital on a ventilator for the third straight day. He had to stop himself from dialing her number.
On his phone, a text popped up from his sister, Jackie.
“So horrible not to see mama and not talk to her and know she’s alone.”
Later that Oct. 5th, the President of the United States left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, stood outside the White House and took off his mask. He also fired off a tweet that came to define his approach to a virus that has killed 226,000 Americans.
“Feeling really good!” Trump wrote. “Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life. We have developed, under the Trump Administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
Hughes, 53, heard about the tweet after a fretful day of keeping tabs on his mother’s condition. He’d settled into bed to catch up on the news with his nine dogs and a glass of Cabernet. Don’t be afraid, the president had said. But Hughes had been terrified all day.
That’s the same thing you said in the spring, he thought. His mother had listened to Trump then. She’d believed him, had not been careful and now she was in the hospital, unable to breathe on her own. And you’re telling people not to be afraid?
The White House that Trump entered that day was swiftly becoming a hotspot. Already, a dozen people in Trump’s inner circle were infected.
The country was poised at the foothill of a record spike in infections and deaths. And yet, Trump – whose medical care was superior to what most people get – made his point clear: Don’t worry. It’s not that bad.
In a country polarized and whiplashed by misinformation and spin, people will disagree about the power of the president’s rhetoric, even in their own families and on their own deathbeds. But for those in the crosshairs of a virus blind to politics, the disconnect between what Trump said Oct. 5 and the daily reality of strangling coughs, funeral arrangements and empty beds could not be more bewildering. The collective sense of abandonment, even betrayal, expands with each new case, each death, each record set. “Ungodly,” Hughes called it.
In Los Angeles, Kenia Alcocer heard about the tweet on a hospital television, while her 9-month-old, who had been born premature, was being assessed for surgery. Her husband’s work had dried up because of the pandemic, and they’d scoured empty shelves for diapers in the spring. Now, they were anticipating canceling Halloween and Thanksgiving. “It made me sick to my stomach,” she said.
In San Antonio, Gary Sarli saw it three days before his younger brother died. He called it “infuriating” and “insane.”
Ann Zick was home in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, playing games on her phone, when she learned what the president had said. In another part of the house, her husband lay ill with the virus. It would sicken her too, one week later.
It made her furious, she said. “Spreading that kind of propaganda is only going to make things worse.’’
In Elgin, Illinois, Suzann Jonson heard it after FaceTiming with her father, who was ventilated in the hospital and could not respond. She called it “a knife in the heart.” In Green Bay, Wisconsin, her sister heard it and thought: “I want to punch him,” and then: “No. I’m a dentist. I need my hands.”
Greg Gibson curled up in bed with his wife, Cindy, watching MSNBC. He’d finally returned to work after eight days in the hospital, but exhaustion still overwhelmed him, and he used an inhaler to keep the coughing fits at bay.
The newscast ran down a litany of Trump’s previous efforts to downplay the virus. In September, Trump had insisted he was “not at all concerned” about contracting the disease and that “It affects virtually nobody.”
Cindy turned to her husband.
“Congratulations,” she said. “We are virtually nobody.”
They changed the channel and watched Mulan.
Marilyn Blackhawk’s family gathered in a church on the Winnebago Reservation to celebrate the 54-year-old grandmother’s life. They ate meatloaf, fried chicken, spaghetti and more of Blackhawk’s favorite foods. They sang Native American songs, told stories and prayed.
Blackhawk had died of COVID-19 four days earlier, the same day Trump said not to worry.
While Blackhawk was in the hospital, her son, Tony Zavala, never wanted to be far away. But only his sister Nina could visit, because she’d already had COVID. So Zavala, 30, often sat in the little hospital chapel with a rock outline of Jesus on the wall. When it was full, he would park his Chevy Equinox outside the hospital, listening to country music, letting the fear wash over him.
He didn’t care what anyone thought about it. He needed to be close to his mother.
Meanwhile, Blackhawk was keeping her family and friends updated by Facebook.
“I am weak and can not walk yet,” she wrote on Sept. 26.
“I was unresponsive but they got me back.” she wrote Oct. 1. “Continued prayers please. I was scared this morning.”
Her last post came on Oct. 3. “Goals: get better, outta this ICU. Get my nails done.”
When the time came, her children surrounded her hospital bed. Relatives relegated to the hospital chapel held each other and cried. Then, around 5 p.m., came the high pitched flatline tone that they had all dreaded. The crying in Blackhawk’s room grew louder.
One week after her mother-in-law died, Megan Zavala was scrolling through Twitter in her Lincoln, Nebraska home when she stumbled on another tweet from Trump.
“California is going to hell,” the president wrote. “Vote Trump!”
Zavala felt a surge of anger.
“He’s still just caring about himself,” Zavala said. “He doesn’t want to lose.”
Things had taken a turn for the worse. Johnny Lara Gonzales Sr., 82, had developed pneumonia and was on a myriad of drugs and treatments – morphine, Remdesivir, convalescent plasma.
He used to wear masks to the store and make jokes about the coronavirus: “I’m too tough for that COVID,” he’d tell his kids. Now, hospitalized with the virus in the ICU, he had a new one to tell.
“Nobody makes it out of here alive.”
He should have died nearly a decade ago, when his former wife accidentally ran him over with his car. The nurses and doctors brought him back then, and they did it time and time again: When he suffered a massive stroke, when his kidneys failed, when his heart grew weak.
In all his brushes with adversity and death, Gonzales was a fighter. He was a U.S. Army veteran and third-generation Mexican-American, a corporal rifleman stationed in Germany. He was a father who pummeled alcohol addiction and achieved 33 years of sobriety. He was a bus driver for the University of Arkansas, the last job in a line of increasingly fascinating careers, until he retired at 80.
When his lungs became so swollen they resembled shattered glass, doctors at the Fayetteville VA medical center brought out the ventilator.
“I need you to be strong,” he told his children. “This could be it.”
On Oct. 7, his daughter, Suzann Jonson, 53, watched Trump stand outside the Oval Office and declare himself cured thanks to an antibody cocktail from a company called Regeneron.
“If you’re in the hospital and feeling really bad, we’re going to work it so you get it and you get it free,” Trump said. “You’re going to get better, you’re going to get better really fast.”
She called the hospital and asked that her father be given the free drugs that Trump got. Nurses said he was already on Remdesivir, but the Regeneron treatment was not yet FDA-approved.
Her father died Oct. 10, 13 days after he got COVID, five days after the President said not to worry, three days after Trump touted the cure he wasn’t allowed to have.
His three sons and four daughters keep one image of their father close to mind: Gonzales driving his red 1961 Studebaker, his pride and joy. It was one of the antique cars he personally painted and restored. In a video shot by a University of Arkansas student last year, Gonzales shows off the car and cruises around Fayetteville.
“I want to drive it to heaven,” he says, before the video ends.
It had been eight days since the President said not to worry and 11 days since Gary Hughes called his mother at the hospital to tell her Trump had the virus, too.
“Well you’re in good company,’’ Hughes had said on Oct. 2.
His mother laughed.
“I hope it doesn’t make him too sick,” she said.
“I hope he doesn’t die,” Hughes answered. “But I hope he feels sick enough to understand the seriousness of it.”
Most of the family didn’t take the virus seriously, Hughes said. “They believed… that it was a hoax and it would go away by the election.’’
His mom – who’d buried two husbands, walked five miles a day and loved stray animals – beat back the virus in the summer. Even after that, much of his family was inconsistent with masks, wearing them at the grocery or at work, but not around his mom or at her farm.
They lived out in the country, and, he said, they continued to believe that COVID would be like the flu.
They also continued to listen to Trump, who said, “We have it under control,” and “It’s going to disappear.”
Hughes begged his mother: “Don’t listen to him.”
Now it was Oct. 13, and his mom had been bleeding internally since Saturday night. The family made the decision to take her off life support about 5 a.m.
At 5:35 a.m., she was gone.
Hughes was too numb to cry. He got dressed, hopped on his Can-Am and rode about a mile up to a bluff in the woods that overlooked the home he shared with his partner, the barns that dotted their land, and a pond.
Down below, they were building a lake house. It was for his mother, so she would have a place of her own when she came to visit, a spot to drink her coffee and sit on the dock, overlooking the rippling water. Hughes gazed upon it, knowing that now she would never see it finished.
Suddenly, he felt it, a well of hurt that he couldn’t quell. He was furious at the world. He was furious at Trump. He was furious at his mother for listening to the president. And it all erupted, shattering the quiet, and Gary Hughes screamed and screamed.
Fifteen days after the president warned people not to be afraid, Gibson – who had changed the channel to watch Mulan – took a sick day because he wasn’t feeling well.
He got up from bed to make lunch for his son when he launched into an uncontrollable coughing fit. He’d had fainting spells most of his life, and now, gasping for air with COVID-damaged lungs, he hit the floor.
When he came to, ribs hurting, he climbed back into bed.
His wife, who had been poll-watching at a local election site, returned home oblivious to what had happened.
“I’m injured,” Greg Gibson said when she checked on him.
She assumed he just didn’t want to help her bring in the groceries.
“No, I’m really injured.”
A trip to the hospital revealed Gibson had hit his head on a hope chest during the fall, fractured his ribs, and now had bleeding in his brain. He spent three days in the ICU before being sent home to recover.
With election day bearing down, President Trump held rallies in The Villages and Pensacola, Florida, with thousands of raucous supporters crowded together, many not wearing masks.
He called COVID the “China plague” and said lockdowns were unnecessary.
“I know it better than you,” he said. “I had it.”
The disease was speeding across the county. Another 83,757 new cases of COVID-19 were reported that Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University, shattering the previous one-day record of 77,362 new cases set in July.
“That’s all I hear about now,’’ the president told another crowd at one of three rallies Saturday. “That’s all I hear. Turn on television, ‘COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. ‘COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.’ By the way, on Nov. 4 you won’t hear about it anymore.’’
“Even without the vaccines, we’re rounding the turn,” Trump said Sunday in Londonderry, New Hampshire, repeating a refrain so common and confounding it was mocked on Jimmy Kimmel.
Meanwhile, the virus hit the staff of Vice President Mike Pence, infecting at least five. Still, Pence pledged to continue campaigning, ignoring CDC guidelines that he quarantine. And Trump kept holding rallies, often several in a single day.
“Rounding the turn,” he said in Pennsylvania. “COVID COVID COVID,” he said in Arizona.
The country’s weekly average of new daily cases topped 70,000, another record. And the U.S. recorded more than half a million new coronavirus infections this week, a new high for cases over a seven-day stretch.
In Tennessee, away from all the campaigning and debating, Gary Hughes buried his mother. Her pastor was unable to preside. He was ill with COVID-19.
After the graveside service, everyone went back to the church and gathered in the fellowship hall for a potluck meal, and Hughes greeted his family members, thanking them for coming. Finally he sat down with two of his uncles and one of his cousins.
Hughes and his mother’s youngest brother reminisced about the life she’d lived. But despite the specter of the virus and all it had wrought, Hughes’s uncle hadn’t changed his mind about it.
“This is all a hoax,’’ his uncle said of the virus that had taken his sister’s life. “It was sent from China … to disrupt the election. But this is nothing more than the flu.’’
Hughes looked at him, bewildered. “We just buried Mom,’’ he said. “It’s not just the flu.’’
Apparently unconvinced, his uncle rose and, without another word, walked away.
Trump: Virus treatment made me feel like Superman
President Donald Trump spoke during a campaign rally in Arizona on Wednesday about his experience contracting COVID-19, saying he “felt like superman” after receiving an experimental antibody cocktail. (Oct. 28)